I just took a trip on the most crooked river in Illinois. I hardly believed the bends and switchbacks.
This is November, I really didn’t paddle the river, I checked out the map on the internet.
Over the years, I have paddled and raced the Pec – I think I paddled all of it from the state line, through Freeport to the city of Pecatonica, to the Two Rivers landing. Not at one time, but in stretches.
What do you find on the Pec?
First of all, you can see the work of a dedicated group of people who have built some pretty good canoe landings. Bobtown Landing and Damascus Landing, to name a couple.
Not too many years ago, one of the paddlers from the area ran into a problem with rules and regulations. You had to get permission ahead of time to use the park boat landing. When he tried to take out after paddling, he found out about the law. He and his friends decided to change things.
They asked for IPC input to convince the local authorities that this was not a good thing. (They also served on the IPC board)
Then they went ahead and started improving the landing sites on the river. They have been successful beyond their dreams.
They hold an annual race on the Pec also.
Second, you find a peaceful winding river. Not many road crossings, not many buildings, just miles of stream to paddle and enjoy. Of course there is the wildlife – birds, deer.
Just the place for a get-away.
Use your maps, and you can paddle downstream and bike back to your vehicle over a trail or country roads.
Many years ago, Ralph Frese told me about this river. My wife Grace and I joined the group led by Larry and Evelyn Tennysson.
A professor from the local University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana joined us several times and told us about the many places associated with the life of local Indians.
This river is good for paddling in early spring, but we paddled it many times in the summer months as well. One winter we spent the three Christmas Holidays on the river and enjoyed the nights in empty and free campgrounds. In addition to the beautiful river, there are also many very nice ponds and hiking trails.
We have many pictures from our trips and great memories, and give special thanks to Larry and Evelyn Tennyson. And this year, we had a second private celebration day in memory of Ralph Frese. See some pictures from our trips here, and enjoy and plan a trip on this beautiful river.
Central Illinois is an area of mostly flat prairies, flattened ages ago by the glaciers and now part of the corn belt of America. Some rolling hills and bluffs remain near the Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys, but in general, paddlers’ choices are primarily flatwater rivers, lakes, and marshes. When the creeks are up, especially in the spring, there are some spots with more playful water for those interested in that sort of thing.
One of my favorite rivers in this area is the Middle Fork of the South Vermilion. This is a beautiful, fun little river, near Danville, Illinois, with a nice current, local outfitters, and good camping. The Middle Fork is Illinois’ first State Scenic River, designated as such in 1986. In 1989, the Middle Fork was also designated as a National Scenic River. It is the first river in Illinois to be included in the National Wild Scenic Rivers System. The traditional trip is Kinney’s Ford to Kickapoo State Park. Two feet on the Oakwood gauge means a nice water level. It can be done lower though. The outfitter at Kickapoo State Park is quite helpful if one has questions about water levels. The DNR closes the river at four feet.
There are several beautiful, small, crystal clear lakes and ponds near the Middle Fork which also make for a nice paddle.
Close by, the Salt Fork of the South Vermilion is also nice and has decent water levels much later into the year than the Middle Fork. It is less crowded, as there are no outfitters (except at the point where it joins with the Middle Fork). The Salt Fork near St. Joseph is the gauge typically used to assess this section. It should be noted, though, that the water level, and not the cfs, is generally used to assess paddling this section, as the gauge is in a hole and thus the cfs often reads very low when the river is at a nice level for paddling. It is usually paddled at levels under five feet and above three feet.
Central Illinois has a number of seasonal creeks which can offer more splashy water and the thrill of navigating narrow channels and avoiding deadfall. I find creeks to be my favorite type of paddle, as the experience itself is constantly changing, even on the same creek. Rather than listing them here, those creeks are best paddled initially with locals who know the proper water levels and when to go. Joining local clubs can aid in getting experience in these trickier waters.
One of the most popular rivers in central Illinois is the Mackinaw River. Very centrally located, this is a favorite river for the central Illinois-based Mackinaw Canoe Club. Further west is the Spoon River – of Spoon River Anthology fame. This is a narrow, intimate river especially beautiful during the peak fall foliage period, if the water levels are right. Be aware the take-outs on the Spoon and Mackinaw can be uphill, challenging, and muddy at times. Both of those frequently paddled rivers could benefit from improved put-ins and parking. Facilities are currently nonexistent. These are both narrow rivers, which for most of the paddling season are slow, friendly rivers. Being narrow, however, they can easily become dangerous at high water levels and especially at flood. The Mackinaw River is usually paddled when the Congerville gauge is around two feet. Over three feet, it can become pushy and it is not recommended at levels above four feet. In 2015, two individuals died in separate incidents (one kayaking and one with an inner tube) when they attempted the river at flood.
The Sangamon River near New Salem is where Abraham Lincoln canoed as a young man. The Lincoln Heritage Water Trail Association hosts Abe’s River Race typically around Memorial Day every year on that river. In the fall, they also host a Canoe and Candlelight event, with a canoe and kayak trip followed by a candlelight exploration of New Salem.
The Hennepin Canal is also paddled. It is popular with fisherman, and as a canal, can be paddled both directions. Paddling through the tubes or culverts is a nice photo op. The locks, no longer in use, must be portaged, so trips are planned with the locations of the locks a consideration. There is a nice bike trail along the side of the canal. This is very flat water suitable for beginners.
The bigger rivers in Illinois include, of course, the Illinois River itself and the Mississippi. Every August, several small towns host the HLC paddle – (Henry-Lacon-Chillicothe) – a big event with numerous kayakers paddling that 17-mile main stretch on the Illinois. Flying carp, although funny at first, are a serious problem on the river. Noise startles and contributes to the carp jumping, so they are often seen during the HLC paddle.
Popular places to paddle on the Illinois River are the backwaters near Chillicothe, Hennepin, and other towns. Flocks of pelicans are commonly seen in the backwaters. It can feel remote and marsh-like, and is quite pretty. It is easy to get turned around in the backwaters, though, so a GPS is helpful. The backwaters are closed to paddling during waterfowl hunting season. When the Illinois River is especially high, the land that is normally in the backwaters turns into wetlands and paddlers can enjoy “paddling the trees,” an especially fun type of paddle that usually happens in late spring.
The Mississippi River also has many popular paddles in the backwaters. Yearly – also in August – is the perennial Floatzilla event. That is the quest to break the world’s record with the largest joined raft of kayak, canoes, and other floating modes of transport. About 1,400 paddlers attended last year. Although ending in Iowa, the paddle starts in Illinois, as the Mississippi straddles both states.
Surprisingly, the center of Illinois also has whitewater. That is on the North Vermilion River near Matthiessen State Park. That section of the river was closed for a number of years after a death. Some changes were made to the river and the dam area, and it reopened a few years ago. Wildcat Rapids is a class II-III drop suitable only with whitewater boats or rafts, or the inflatable self- bailing kayaks. There is an outfitter, but no guides. They will rent you helmets, a raft or inflatable kayak, and other equipment, but then you are pretty much on your own without much direction. Rafts do tip over not uncommonly, and there are large rocks. A helmet is mandatory. There was a rockfall a number of years ago that changed the character of the drop at Wildcat Rapids. The chute is no longer as described in Svob’s Paddling Illinois book, and scouting is recommended. If you paddle that stretch, don’t miss the chance, shortly before the takeout, to sneak up a side creek and see the gorgeous waterfalls of Matthiessen State Park from the bottom. You may have to park your kayak or raft and walk a little up the creek, but it is worth it.
Last but not least are the marshes and lakes of central Illinois. Banner Marsh is one of my favorite paddles. A solo paddle at sunset is beautiful and peaceful. The marsh is a favorite spot of fisherman also. There are numerous places to explore in the marsh, and the biggest problem for those new to the marsh is not getting lost. A water trail was recently established in the east section. The Main Section is much larger and more confusing, and plans are for a trail to be established there also. Banner Marsh closes to paddling when waterfowl hunting season starts in mid-October.
Emiquon is a reclaimed wetland near where the Spoon River empties into the Illlinois. There are abundant waterfowl there and it is a great photography spot for bird photographers. Formerly to paddle there, one would fill out a free registration ticket at the nearby Dickson Mounds State Museum. The museum, which has numerous Native American artifacts, was closed because of the Illinois budget crisis. When the museum was closed, the tickets were available at the put-in near a drop box. The State recently announced the museum will reopen on July 2, so I assume the tickets will be available there again also.
Evergreen Lake is a favorite paddle for those who live near Bloomington. It has abundant birds and wildlife. There is a $20 daily fee to paddle the lake for nonresidents. Locals typically buy a season pass.
Other popular lakes include Lake Springfield, Clinton Lake, and further south, Lake Shelbyville.
Paddling clubs – typically the best source of information – include the Mackinaw Canoe Club. That is the oldest established club in the area and an ACA club member. Other clubs include the Champaign Ski and Adventure club. That club does frequent kayaking, along (obviously) with other sports. The Central Illinois Canoe and Paddling Meetup (a meetup which I took over organizer duties of a few years ago) is another club also doing local trips, with attempts to dispense some general paddling information. Team Dirt Clod is a whitewater club based mostly out of Springfield.
I love kayaking of all types and enjoy exploring new waters. For anyone who wants to explore the waters of central Illinois, I hope my little summary of some of the more popular stretches helps. Please be aware that any river levels quoted are for guidance only, as conditions can vary, the gauges themselves can change, and they are not a guarantee of safety. It is always safest to paddle in groups, talk with locals for the most up-to-date information, and wear your PFD.
Here are links to the Mackinaw Canoe Club website and Facebook page:
It took a while, but the Kankakee has been named a National Waterway.
The process started about 10,000 years ago when the melting glacier broke through the moraines holding it back from Lake Erie (wasn’t called Lake Erie then). A wall of water surged forward, carving out a wide valley and leaving a great wetland.
The wetland attacked many forms of wildlife – called by some the “Everglades of the North.” Through this wetland flowed a river. The natives called it the Aukiki or Theatiki or Kankakee.
The river flowed through Indiana and Illinois. A beautiful stream, clear water.
In the 1600’s and 1700’s, Voyageurs used the river as a highway. LaSalle and Tonti used this river as a main route between Montreal and Mackinaw Island to the Illinois River. A short, flat portage at South Bend the only obstacle, it would have been a national waterway, but we had no nation. Later in Indiana, it would become a hunting favorite for Presidents and dignitaries from Europe. In Illinois, the backwaters housed bank robbers and horse thieves.
Now, another 100 years later, the Kankakee River has been named a National Waterway. Most of the channelized portions in Indiana have been taken over by nature. Wooded banks, beaver, fish, deer and a good river to paddle. In Illinois, where the river was not channelized, there are more bends, and a faster current.
Unlike some major rivers, the Kankakee does not flow through many major urban areas, so it is often tree lined and natural.
I have paddled sections of the Kankakee in Indiana and the length of the river in Illinois.
Fun, scenic with public access points close enough to make a pleasant trip. As the river flows into Illinois, the current increases. Immediately, the river bends and curves.
My favorite section is above Momence. A paddle to the state line and back might take three hours – but if you start at the state line (car shuttle), it is a fast, good trip. The river meanders and bends, and sand bars at the bends will take up ½ the river. Read the river and enjoy.
The most popular section is from Bird Park in Kankakee to Warner Bridge, Kankakee State Park. Canoes, tubers float past. Some river reading will keep your feet dry. Neat island and sandstone cliffs along the way.
You can paddle the whole length of the river in both Indiana and Illinois. There are frequent public access sites.
CAUTION: Some laws you should observe.
Momence – no canoes on the island (access on east side of island)
Kankakee – you cannot portage at the dam (portage at the park a block or so before the dam – river left)
Wilmington – you cannot portage the dam (run the mill race river right and then portage down the hill)
The Kankakee meets the Des Plaines at Dresden, and becomes the Illinois River.
KANKAKEE RIVER MEMORY
Shortly after we started canoe racing, my friend Dave (Peanut Butter) heard about a race on the Kankakee in Indiana. No racing canoes.
We brought our Sawyer Cruiser and immediately saw that we were in a different class than most of the boats. Aluminum canoes with young men in their late teens and early twenties were our competition.
A local “Boys” club had bought a voyageur canoe and were hoping to raise some money to pay off the purchase. The young men were either part of the club or alumni.
A la mans start – run across the parking lot – left us way behind. Shortly after the start, a boat dumped. We helped them and their canoe to shore, paddled downstream, and returned with their paddles. And within twenty minutes or so, we had passed everyone.
We were actually embarrassed, but apparently the spectators were not. At each bridge, spectators asked my wife, our pit crew, if the “old men” had come by yet (we were in our 40s). We would wait around bends for the other canoes so we did not finish too far ahead.
The finish was under a bridge on a rural road. A flat grassy area at the take-out.
1st place was a cash prize – $100. I took it, gave it to Dave, who counted it and gave it to the race sponsor.
BUT – THAT IS NOT THE END OF THE STORY.
Several years later, there was a re-enactment at the Kankakee Marsh County Park.
Things had changed – that rural road and grassy spot was now a nice county spot in the restored wetlands. Way to go, Indiana!
I saw a Park Ranger – a young man. “Years ago, there was a race on the river that ended here. Do they still have the race?” I asked.
The ranger replied. “We only held it one year and two old guys whipped us good!”
Then he added – “You’re one of them!”
And I felt good, not that he recognized me, but that one of the boys was now working as a park ranger to help preserve the river and wetlands, and that the state and county were working to preserve the area for the future.
No motor boats, no barges, and deep enough not to scratch the bottom of your boat. Finally the secret of a beautiful flowing river in the southern suburbs of Chicago has been rediscovered. In the fall of 2015, the Cook County Forest Preserve opened a new boat ramp along the Little Calumet River at the Kickapoo Woods Forest Preserves. The immediate feedback from paddlers and novice alike was that it is a perfect venue. Kickapoo Woods offers plenty of parking in a safe, well-lit area for paddlers to enjoy. Not only does the new launch site offer easy, safe access to the river, but the location along the shallow portion of the Upper Little Calumet River makes it a perfect place for beginner and intermediate paddlers. Meander is the perfect verb and noun describing the paddling experience on this section of the river. The river bends and curves, and on most days, the river’s flow is calm enough to offer a gentle riding experience in the great outdoors.
Join the coalition of outdoor enthusiasts and community organizations in not only a river clean up, but an introduction to both canoeing and kayaking on this gem in the southern suburbs. Saturday morning, June 4 2016, is the day of the “Little Calumet River Day at Kickapoo Woods;” please join us on exploring this secret south side treasure.
Although it’s focused on winter paddling in the warmer end of the state (i.e., Southern Illinois), the images evoked and tips provided are applicable state-wide. Though you might want to check out Paul Klonowski’s article on cold weather paddling in this TIP before heading out.
Exciting things are happening in Central Illinois! A new water trail project has been in the making over the last year and the signs should be installed in the first loop of the 4 planned loops very soon known as the Wheel Lake loop. These “Loop Trails” will not require car shifts as you end up where you started! I targeted only one trail per year but if time permits I will attempt to install the second loop trail signs this fall on Johnson lake. If not, they will be in place by spring of 2016.
The SFWA embraced the water trail idea when I presented it to them and they gave me permission to lay out the first water trail this area has ever seen! Banner has 4 main lakes and I am beginning with the northernmost lake, Wheel Lake. 350 acres at normal pool this lake has islands and many interesting coves to explore. This 4 mile loop has 100’s of options to deviate off of the trail but be aware of your surroundings as all lakes at Banner are very maze like. You could easily triple the loop mileage if you explored the whole shoreline. For deeper exploration, a nice hand held GPS is suggested.
Johnson Lake loop is a larger loop at a tentative 7.7 miles. This may change as most of my energy has been spent on the Wheel lake layout and the final route may change at Johnson. Johnson lake is the largest lake at Banner with 600 acres of water at normal pool. The loop trail here also offers 100’s of options off of the trail to explore. GPS again is suggested.
This excerpt is taken from the DNR web page:
“Banner Marsh State Fish & Wildlife Area is located approximately 25 miles southwest of Peoria on U.S. Route 24 and is protected from the Illinois River by a major levee. Teeming with fish and wildlife, Banner Marsh provides various outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, boating, dog training, picnicking, wildlife observation and photography. Three public access areas lead into Banner Marsh, all of which have parking lots, boat ramps, restrooms and picnic areas. The only type of camping allowed at Banner Marsh is youth group camping. Nearby Rice Lake State Fish & Wildlife Area has camping facilities available.
Prior to the Department of Natural Resources purchasing tracts of land bordering the Illinois River in Fulton and Peoria counties during the 1980s, the area was used for agricultural purposes and surfaced mined for coal.
Today, Banner Marsh State Fish & Wildlife Area serves as a 4,363-acre freshwater marsh. More than 200-plus water bodies, and its vast acres of grassland and shrub land habitats provide excellent habitat for migrating and local waterfowl, numerous species of game fish and other wildlife, while providing opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts.”
Come explore Banner and paddle this beautiful lake system. Be mindful of waterfowl season October 17th-Jan31 as no boat traffic is permitted at that time. Call the Rice lake office as it is the office that governs both Rice lake and Banner Marsh. 309-647-9184 . Please remember that we are only one spoke in the wheel at Banner so please respect others, obey the closure times during hunting season and never intentionally interfere with the wildlife as we are in their world out here.
It was just one of those near perfect days – in spite of the weather reports. The temperature had dropped from 90 degrees when I left Lemont, down to 87 with a soft breeze. Our destination was the Mack Road landing (and dog park).
A couple years ago, funds became available to clean up toxic waste left over from about 1940 or earlier. Much of the river bottom was dredged and replaced. It is probably one of the cleanest rivers in Illinois now. When they redid the river, someone thought it would be a good idea to place boulders in the river – to increase the flow? In low water, these can be a problem, especially paddling upstream.
Today the river was up some and we headed up stream. Negotiating between boulders and fast current in a winding stream was a challenge at times.
As we approached Gary’s Mill Road, there were fewer boulders and a lot of yellow water lilies. Upstream of Rt 38, we lost the water lilies and the water was rather quiet.
Tree lined banks, a grove of dead trees off to the west, trees with vines (probably Virginia Creeper – they will be beautiful come fall). One old Oak stood out with its many branches reaching out in all directions.
Cormorants in the trees, herons, a cardinal flew right by almost close enough to touch. Kingfishers. I was surprised no turtles sunning themselves.
An hour took us to Gary’s Mill Forest Preserve and time to return.
Now with the current, things looked a little different. We looked for the V between rock and tried to find the fastest current.
The takeout came too soon.
We had plenty of company – 9 kayaks passed us headed downstream – not one group, but singles or pairs. One with a small girl spread over her father’s bow while he pulled the kayak. It was a long trip for her.
There are canoe landings in Winfield, at Mack Road, in Warrenville, and McDowell Woods. (The landing in Winfield is about ½ block off the road, but the bank is really not too steep to launch right there.) In Warrenville, they removed the picturesque dam leaving a chute you can paddle. (Takeout either upstream or downstream of the chute.)
McDowell Woods has a takeout just a few feet from the parking lot (each stretch should take about an hour and a half or so).
Below McDowell Woods, there is a rocky chute where a dam was removed. Downstream is what I call the guillotine dam. (The gates drop down like the blade ready to behead a canoe when they close off the dam.) There is a drop at the dam. The forest preserve tells you to portage and be safe. I understand that there was a problem there earlier this year.
You can continue on past the Naperville Riverwalk to Pioneer Park.
You can go upstream from Winfield, over a small dam that you can paddle over. One winter we took our big canoe upstream from Winfield on a warm January day and paddled through fields of snow. Beautiful. We also have done a guerilla put-in (park at the side of the road and put in by a bridge) at St Charles Road (water very low). We paddled past a golf course and picked up dozens of balls. We gave them to the first golfer we saw.
In low water, you do not want to paddle an aluminum boat in the West branch where we did.
It took a dedicated group of people 22 years to prevent a dam from flooding this scenic river in
Central Illinois – Gateway to North America’s Grand Prairie
Read Dr. Clark Bullard’s article on HOW THE MIDDLEFORK GOT ITS NAME
In 1836 the Illinois country was the frontier, and many forts and outposts were vying for the role of “Gateway to the West.” One competitor was Amando D. Higgins, a real estate developer from New York who traveled up the Wabash and followed the Vermilion River into the Illinois country. West of Danville, he followed the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River into the Grand Prairie. Stopping at a point where the river was more than 150 feet wide and still navigable to steamers, and ample firewood was available, he founded Higginsville — the Gateway to the West — and advertised lots for sale in the New York papers. His 1837 plats show he named the town “Vermilion Rapids,” for the barrier that marked the end of the navigable part of the river.
According to The History of Vermilion County (1879), Higgins had great plans for his town, “where boats could take on products of the rich farming lands for miles around… Direct communication would be kept up all year with New Orleans, Rio, Cuba and Europe…” Unfortunately the draining of the prairie wetlands caused all rivers in Illinois to shrink substantially during summer months, after carrying off the spring rains in raging torrents. Many mills went bankrupt and had to move to larger rivers.
Higginsville today consists of only a few houses and a cemetery. It is better known as the most popular put-in point for canoeists enjoying Illinois’ only National Scenic River. Permanently protected since 1989 by the state and federal governments, this 17-mile segment of the MiddleFork and its 8,000 acres of adjoining public parks and wildlife areas is a truly unique recreational and ecological resource.
National Scenic River designation followed a bitter 22-year battle over a proposal to drown the river and its valley under a proposed “MiddleFork Reservoir.” By blurring the words together, dam boosters attempted to deprive the MiddleFork of its identity as a river. The semantic conflict was a subtle yet powerful dimension of the political debate.
That struggle is behind us now, and Illinois has a National Scenic River protected by state and federal law and National Park Service regulations. The future generations who enjoy the river will know it by its proper name: The MiddleFork of the Vermilion — Gateway to North America’s Grand Prairie. Another place claimed the honor of being gateway to the West.
On July 29 and lasting until July 31st, the Plum River in Savanna, Illinois, will benefit from the efforts of individuals with the goals of making a navigable stream completely open for paddling, fishing, and wildlife interests, in short, creating a recreational destination for area residents and tourists. When completed, the Plum River will present 9.7 miles of paddling which uniquely requires only a two mile car shuttle. The stream is currently blocked by at least four known logjams. This problem will be addressed by a plan to manage timber stands along the river. The project combines three day community work and concurrent with one week AmeriCorps team work.
One of the significant features of the project is the resources deployed in the effort. The list includes, Carroll County Soil and Water Conservation District, Blackhawk Hills Regional Council, Savanna, Mt. Carroll and AmeriCorps Team, area contractors, residents, and local landowners. Volunteers and donations are welcome. For more information on efforts to connect scenic Old Mill Park to the Mississippi, and later from Mt. Carroll to Spring Lake to Thomson, check it out at: